Cooking When You Don’t Feel Like Cooking

Last Tuesday night, the week of Thanksgiving, we ate French Bread pizzas for dinner. I had a baguette that was about to go stale, a half jar of Rao’s marinara in the fridge, a ball of mozzarella, and very little desire to spend more than two minutes on dinner. I didn’t even feel like expending energy on a vegetable, instead deputizing 12-year-old Abby to chop up some Romaine hearts and call it salad.

A week later — last night — I was pan-roasting a duck breast, simmering a wine-macerated-cherry sauce on the stovetop, and whisking a homemade vinaigrette, while reading Elizabeth Dunn’s essay in the Atlantic, “The Myth of Easy Cooking” on my phone. (No, the irony was not lost on me.) For those of you who haven’t read it, the basic idea is that the food industry — particularly magazines and cookbooks — over-promise on the speed and ease of recipes. They offer up complicated curries and homemade pie dough as though anyone with half a brain cell can throw them together for a regular old weeknight family dinner…after spending a day at the office…with a toddler underfoot. The result of all this? Dunn, the mother of a one-year-old, writes: “…The weight of expectation imposed by our cooking culture, which offers unrealistically complex recipes while at the same time dismissing them as simple, can be crushing.”

I agree with her premise. Like Dunn, I was working as a food editor when I had a one-year-old; Like Dunn, I was wary of all the recipes we convinced ourselves were quick, easy, and “kid-friendly” to boot. (A partial ridiculous list: lettuce soup, homemade multigrain crackers, a pork dish that called for some kind of dehydrated apple chip garnish…sorry, I’ve tried to block that one out); And presumably like Dunn, I took part in endless office conversations about the balance between attainable vs. aspirational cooking, i.e. no one was going to buy a magazine that taught them how to make French bread pizzas…nor were they going to subscribe to the idea that a pan-roasted Hudson Valley Duck with a Cherry-Peach reduction was a viable option for a Tuesday night family dinner. The answer, of course, was somewhere in between. (Maybe the Aspirtainable? You heard it here first!)

Dunn also writes this: “The decision to cook from scratch may have many virtues, but ease is not one of them. Despite what we’re told, cooking the way so many Americans aspire to do it today is never fast, and rarely easy compared to all the other options available for feeding ourselves.”

Of course she’s right — of course it’s easier to one-click a meal on Seamless than it is to roast vegetables and sausages, no matter how many different ways I tell you that is the world’s simplest dinner — but it’s Dunn’s tone of resignation I feel the need to address before scores of Atlantic readers throw up their hands and surrender to take-out. Her underlying assumption seems to be that we are the same cook from one night to the next, from one year to the next. We’re not. At least, I’m not. When I was a full-time, commuting mother with a witching-hour one-year-old, step 4 in a recipe, asking me to, for instance, brown something in batches was an affront to my existence. (As was just about anything during those sleep-deprived years.) Now, working from home with two middle schoolers…it’s just Step 4. On French bread pizza nights, I can’t imagine I’ll ever want to turn on the stove again; On Hudson Valley Duck nights, I can’t believe how therapeutic it feels to try out a recipe that’s been in my “Someday File” for a few months now. Even after a stressful, busy day. (Busy? I hear my younger self say. You’re not allowed to use the word ‘busy.’)

Anyway, it’s a tricky proposition — not to mention a total condescending cliche — to say that things get easier, or to measure someone else’s experience by one’s own. All I can do, here in DALS land is point you in the direction of aspirtainable recipes, dishes to cook when you don’t really feel like cooking, dishes that don’t crush your spirit but remind you why it’s worth it to stay in the game. To that end: A favorite…

Totally Aspirtainable Sausages with Roasted Fall Vegetables

2-3 carrots, peeled, and chopped into disks
1 bunch Romanesco or broccoli, trimmed
1 fennel bulb, trimmed and cut into wedges
olive oil, a generous drizzle
salt and pepper
4 links, sweet Italian sausages (or your favorite kind — andouille, chicken chorizo, etc.)

Preheat oven to 400°F. In a baking dish, toss together the vegetables, olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast for 30-35 minutes, tossing half way through, until slightly caramelized and cooked through. Meanwhile, cook sausages in a pan over medium heat, tossing every few minutes until browned and cooked through, about 10-12 minutes. Serve sausages with vegetables, crusty bread, and an assortment of grainy and hot mustards.

*We started roasting the vegetables before the oven got to 400°F, which is why the temperature display in the photo says 263. (It won’t work out too well at that heat.) Also, our oven clock hasn’t been accurate in seven years. We were not making dinner at 1:52.

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31 Comments

Amanda

Hi Jenny – I just have to say that DALS and The Playbook have been game changers in my household. I have a full-time job and am a mother of a 4 and 1 year old. Pre-kids my husband and I loved to cook. We are still trying to figure out how to make everything work with two under five. As you stated above, some weeks, my husband and I have prepped on Sunday, procured all appropriate groceries and everything syncs up. Other weeks, it is mac and cheese and take-out . My family is fortunate to have choices as to what works for us week to week or day to day. I don’t stress when it doesn’t work out, knowing that your books have given us a formula to go back to (in the Playbook I love your weekly meal plans). After a particularly crazy week, my 4 year old looks at me and says, “When are we going to eat together as a family?” While it highlighted the chaos of the current week, I counted it as a win in that we have established enough of a family dinner routine that it is something she can miss! Thank you for that. It is never easy, but (usually) always worth it.

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Suzer

Do you really roast vegetables in that pretty dish? Mine are always scattered across a beat-up sheet pan.

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Raising The Capable Student

DALS has been a huge help for me too! Sometimes it is a quick read of your blog before I leave work that gives me the pep talk I need to make it happen. Other times it is a recipe. Our Tuesday before Thanksgiving was your lentils with crispy sausage. It was delicious and easy enough for a crazy night. Thanks for your blog! It really is a part of my daily life.

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Nick

Whoa– that temperature LED readout on your oven knob is totally hot. What kind of stove is that?! I WANTS ONE.

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Rachel

I needed to read this today. I have loved cooking for years, and have been game for weeknight duck breast or rack of lamb more often than not. Sitting down to dinner with my husband every night – almost always homemade from scratch – has been an important part of keeping our marriage happy.

Now that I’m 11 weeks pregnant for the first time, it’s been…almost 11 weeks since I cooked dinner (or even ate a proper dinner). One night I set a Spanish tortilla with homemade aioli and romesco sauces down on the table, took one bite and decided that I was never going near an egg again, and that was it.

It’s been a trying three months, but this is a good reminder that a slump isn’t the end, and that I’ll be back in the kitchen soon enough.

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Fran

I just have to take a minute here to say that your website and cookbook have been lifesavers for me. I have two young kids and work from home, and so many of your recipes are absolute favorites–genuinely easy enough to put together but always with a nice twist. Dals has kept us from succumbing to dinner depression, which is more important than I would have thought in my pre-kid life. Sometimes dinner is all you have toook forward to in a sea of work and temper tantrums and bedtimes and messy houses. So thank you!

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katie

I lived with my grandparents this fall and we had this dinner at least once a week. Delicious, easy for leftovers, and I could easily reheat if I was coming home later than them.

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Allison

As someone with 2 little ones underfoot, I make this dish by putting the sausages on top of the veggies for 45 minutes rather than cooking them separately. Way easier as it’s mostly ignored once the veg chopping part is done and only dirtiea the roasting pan.

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Sonja

Thank you! This is so true and I haven’t even really thought about it yet. Nevertheless I was home late yesterday, tired and exhausted, and should have made dinner for my boyfriend and me. I sat down on a chair and just couldn’t do it. Even though I love cooking, there are days when it’s just such a heavy burden. Especially if you cook a lot (as you and I do) it often feels like an obligation to bring an amazing dinner to the table every frickin night. End of story: I called him to get a falafel sandwich from the corner shop and he gladly did so.

Great article!

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Irene

Do you know why your oven clock doesn’t work? Mine doesn’t either, and it turns out that the oven’s digital function is destroyed by the high heat of self-cleaning. I’m now afraid to self-clean because I don’t trust the timer, so I clean with baking powder and white vinegar and glance at the clock on the microwave.

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Awads

I don’t know, I can always whip something up in less time than it takes to agree on which take-out place we want, what we want from there, and then wait, wait, wait for the delivery. Even if it’s just placing boneless chicken thighs under the broiler (coated in as much garlic powder as you can stand, S&P, done in less than 15 minutes!) and a side of Trader Joe’s harvest grains (cooking time: 10 minutes). Add a salad (10 minutes, max!) and boom: done. Plus, chopping anything with a knife gives me immense satisfaction. We did make one tweak to our nightly supper-cooking routine: pushed it up a half an hour. Supper is now served at 6:30 instead of 6:00, which always felt rushed for two working parents. My son is hungrier later, it turns out!

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Mary M

I love this post, and all things that make cooking attainable, yet sometimes aspirational as well. Thank you.

I’m curious: why not roast the sausages in the oven as well? I often do this by starting the vegetables hot, then reducing the heat to 325º when they’re majority done and roasting the sausages in the same oven, different pan.

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Emily K

This recipe was already on our list for tonight! Made even easier by using pre-cooked chicken sausages. I love that DALS’s “easy” is truly realistic even for us working parents with little kids.

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Wendy R.

You hit it right on – some nights I’m happy to dodge my toddler’s busy hands and let her munch crackers while I prep veggies, roast meat and try to make dent in dish mountain. Some nights, I Telly my husband I need to pull the pizza card. Either way, we all get fed and enjoy a family dinner.

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Allyson

Thank you. Picking up your books is like a friend patting me on the back and telling me the fact that I’m not serving frozen chicken nuggets makes me an amazing mom. no matter what I am serving. And with kids who are 5, 3, and 3 and a full time job, I need that.

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Dawn

Jenny — love your books and site. Question: given the recent news about the health risks inherent in sausage — even chicken or turkey sausages — do you have any advice as to substitutes? Chicken sausage was a staple for us and now feels like it should be an occasional treat.

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joy

Any sausage should be an occasional treat, and then it’s totally fine. The findings of that study were wildly blown out of context in the mass media.

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Stephanie Grinnan

You have illustrated perfectly what I have felt with many a cookbook & magazine – until I received dinner a love story as a gift a few years ago. It inspires me to get into the the kitchen and start cooking again. When I had my youngest child two years ago, I felt discouraged. Then I found Dinner: the playbook. This changed everything. I now make weekly menus & shop once a week. Seriously saved my sanity. You’re right, I don’t always want to cook…and on those nights I don’t. But then I get back to your chicken pot pie (easy & delicious!) or the pork shoulder pappardelle & I’m back into making delicious meals.
Thank you, Jenny for being such an inspiration.
Stephanie

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TH

As a parent to two toddlers, I use your book and website all the time to find the aspirtainable. And I agree, things have gotten too fussy and complicated at one end, and too lax in terms of health and quality at the other. Where’s the middle road?
I will say, for as much as the adulation of the French way of doing things has been overblown in the last few years, one thing they do have down is food. And that includes decent meals for busy families. Omelettes and salad, pureed soups with 3 ingredients with some ham and cheese on the side, cakes that have 4 ingredients and take 5 minutes to whip together, even the old meat and ceggie and starch, there are ways to make life easier. Maybe it’s reconciling ourselves to solid but predictable weekday eating.

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Bet @ Bet On Dinner

YES to kitchen mood swings and big discrepancies from night to night and season to season on What Is Possible when it comes to dinner! :o) “Aspirtainable” made me smile. :o)

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Katherine

I love the roasted vegetables and sausages supper! I saw it in Better Homes & Gardens this fall and have made it almost weekly since. They had a recipe for a yogurt sauce, too, that elevates the meal a bit: yogurt (Greek), Dijon mustard, and horseradish. I do 1/4 cup yogurt or so, and then a dollop of both mustard and horseradish. I mixed honey in one night and that was good too!

I have to say, though, that I really disliked the Atlantic article. Many people have jobs and littles running underfoot and manage to make a home cooked meal most nights. it can be tough, but as you point out there can be grace for our Thai food nights and there can be fancy dinners when the baby takes a long nap. Life is all about balance, after all.

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Carrie

Second (or third?) the comment on throwing the sausages in the oven – Jamie Oliver was the one who gave me the courage to do it straight from the freezer, and it has fallen into regular rotation for those nights when we need a “desperation dinner” – like tonight. Thanks as always for inspiring those of us who are weary with lunch-packing, and live nowhere near a good pizza delivery place.

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Veronica

i love this! i’ve resolved (again) to dial down the guilt this year. that includes cooking. it’s true! you are not the same cook from one night to the next, etc. watching others’ curated photos can add to the guilt but i’ve resolved that if it’s mostly home cooked and we’re all at the table together, we’re good. and if it’s too much sometimes and you have to order out, whatever. although i’m dying to try the roti recipe from your first book for my half-guyanese husband! thank you for always providing balance to the home/life discussion. it’s not all or nothing. no judgements…

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